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K 19:  THE WIDOWMAKER

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Digital, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount       
Features: See Review
Length: 137 Minutes
Release Date: December 10, 2002

“In the history of the Soviet navy, no sailors have been given such a boat as K-19. It is the finest submarine in the world. You have been given the honor to be her crew. I have been given the honor to be your captain. Without me, you’re nothing. Without you, I am nothing. Much is expected of us. WE WILL NOT FAIL.”

Film ***1/2

There have been many underwater submarine epics, most of which have been told from the American perspective, and K-19: The Widowmaker stands out as one of the strongest and the best for two primary reasons. For one thing, the movie is inspired by actual events and told from the perspective of the Soviet navy. The other reason is that the movie’s relentless tension is driven by a nail-biting ordeal that occurs within the submarine itself, and doesn’t rely on countless missile firing sequences that have been done before in countless other pictures. K-19 also gains strength from the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and its lead actors. Another important element of this story’s significance is that it could not be told for nearly thirty years.

In a slight acting departure, Harrison Ford delivers his strongest performance in years as Russian naval officer Alexei Vostrikov, a stern and perfection-driven Captain who knows no failure when it comes to commanding a crew and a submarine. The movie takes place against a very trying time for the Soviets. The year is 1961, during the height of the Cold War, and Mother Russia is in a race against time to get their first nuclear submarine as a way of defending the country from a possible nuclear attack from the United States. Vostrikov is chosen at the last minute to command the boat, named K-19. His executive officer is Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), who at first was considered to be captain, but failed to show promise during pivotal drills.

The crew of the ship are more than patient with their new captain, though their loyalties remain with Polenin, who has served with them longer. However, Vostrikov’s tactics while at sea, such as nearly destroying the ship when ordering the firing of a test missile, have the men instigating numerous quarrels. But everyone must put their feelings aside once the unthinkable has occurred within the ship. As the boat as ended up in the western portion of the Atlantic Ocean, a nuclear reactor bursts out and starts to slowly melt. The crew finds that the only way to stop the leaking is for some of the men to heroically make sacrifices, by fixing the reactor amidst harsh nuclear radiation. Making the ordeal even worse is the fact that there are no radiation suits on board. The scenes of the men fighting the nuclear radiation are extraordinarily intense and horrifying.

I strongly feel that anyone who watches it will instantly gain a huge respect for the Soviet navy and the horrific obstacles they went through during this nightmarish event. I know I certainly did. The performances from Ford and Neeson are strong and exceptional, among the best work of both actors, and the film also features a stellar breakthrough performance from Peter Sarsgaard (The Salton Sea) as Vadim, the ship’s naval reactor officer who is probably the most human portrait of the movie, because he displays real emotions of fear in the midst of being responsible for fixing the problem, which we share with him a great deal. He’s much like the Jeremy Davies’ character in Saving Private Ryan.

Since National Geographic is one of the production companies involved with the project, it’s easy to see why K-19: The Widowmaker is faithful to the details of the history it depicts. It’s a thoroughly gripping and suspenseful tale that ranks with the best of submarine flicks, and it’s by far one the more realistic. Credit to director Bigelow and a strong cast of actors for boldly recreating a relatively unknown part of history.

Video ***1/2

For an underwater sea epic, this represents one of the best video transfers to any film of the genre, and for that, Paramount should congratulate themselves. Colors appear crisp and natural, and the overall image quality is thoroughly impressive for sure, despite a couple instances of grain in some more darker lit scenes, but nothing totally distracting.

Audio ****

No flaws here at all, as Paramount delivers a four star audio sweep with a dazzling 5.1 mix. The setting of a submarine provides an outstanding level of dynamic range in nearly every scene. The underwater sequences provide a unique level of bass, and a few effects sequences pay off big time in this area. Plus, the powerful music score by Klaus Badelt is heard in outstanding form. An all around incredible audio presentation!

Features ***

This disc features a commentary track by Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, “The Making of K-19: The Widowmaker” featurette, as well as three additional featurettes; “Exploring the Craft”, “Breaching the Hull”, and “It’s in the Details”, and a trailer.

Summary:

K-19: The Widowmaker is a relentlessly gripping and involving depiction of a crucial point for the Soviet navy during the Cold War. Those in search of a rich historical film need look no further.